A PFD is the one piece of equipment that could save your life

Assistant Tisbury shellfish constable Fred Benson wears an inflatable SOSpenders PFD. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The summer crowds have melted away, the golfer-in-chief has departed, and Islanders are ready to get down to the serious business of preparing for the start of the 65th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

The Derby begins on Sunday Sept. 12 and ends Saturday Oct. 16. Fishermen will be spooling reels, sharpening hooks, and adding lures to their arsenals.

I recommend fishermen pay similar attention to their PFDs (personal floatation device). What is the difference between a PFD and a piece of fishing tackle? One could catch you a fish and the other could save your life.

I need to repeat a message I have delivered many times over the course of this fishing column. I have never included the word “inexperienced” in the many stories I have written about accidents on the water, and that includes those in which there was a tragic loss of life.

What is my point? Readers who think accidents on the water happen to other, less-experienced people are wrong. Readers who think accidents only happen in rough conditions and do not occur on protected waters are wrong. Readers who think having a PFD at arm’s length is sufficient are wrong.

I have an inflatable fishing vest. A tug of a cord pierces a CO2 cartridge and it inflates. I wear it on a boat and on the shore. Why? I was nearly pulled into the water by the backwash of a large wave that struck a jetty I was fishing on many years ago.

I was reminded of that frightening incident by the news that on Tuesday, Nicholas Roussos, 67, of Belmont died after he was swept off the rocks while fishing at Eastern Point in Gloucester.

There are many types of PFDs on the market. Some are more comfortable than others but all can save a life — but only when they are worn. I think public officials need to set an example but not all do.

I have heard a number of excuses why. Working comfort, other people on the boat, small harbor with people around, but the reasons ring empty to me, and to those aware of the statistics and risks.

A Coast Guardsman on a dock or on the water wears a PFD whether the mission is law enforcement or the heavy work of buoy tending. Irrespective of other considerations, Island public officials have a responsibility to set a good example and in many cases follow policies that require PFD use.

I checked in with several towns about policies that require harbor and shellfish personnel to wear PFDs when on the water. “Absolutely, we have a policy on that,” Aase Jones, assistant Tisbury town administrator, said. All Tisbury town employees in a boat are required to wear a PFD.

Tim Carroll, Chilmark town administrator, said the selectmen have twice reaffirmed a policy, and he has sent out multiple memos reminding town employees “that all town personnel must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD when aboard town-owned boats or on town business.”

Why is it important, I asked Tim. “First of all, to set a good example and second of all, anybody can fall overboard and Menemsha channel is fast-moving water and by the time someone got a chance to turn around you could have clunked your head on the side of something and be unconscious.”

Charlie Blair, Edgartown harbormaster, requires no prodding or official guidance to wear a PFD. He embraces it.

“We wear the big hot ugly kind with the reflective tape,” Charlie said when I reached him on the phone Tuesday. “The Stearns workvest, because we want people to see them.”

Charlie said the exception is the pump-out attendant. He wears a fanny pack, a small inflatable PFD worn around the waist. “The police that ride along with us, they wear the SOSpenders because our jackets are too hot for our policeman.”

On a day that broke 90-degrees, Charlie said, “We’ve been sweatin’ to death in them today, but we wear ’em, we want to be visible, we want kids to see that we can wear jackets. We are the example to all the young kids.”

Charlie said it is important. Once the kids see that, they can choose from a variety of comfortable vests on the market.

“The real secret is that once you wear one of these for a season, when you jump in a boat and you don’t have one on, you feel naked, you feel weird,” he said. “My two boys, they both swim, but even if the boat is tied to a dock they’re not allowed on it without lifejackets on.”

David Grunden, Oak Bluffs shellfish constable, said his department has a policy approved by the selectmen that varies depending on the season and environment. If a person is alone in a boat or when the water is below 60-degrees, a PFD is required. Working with someone in the pond, a PFD is not required.

Oak Bluffs has a poignant reminder in the herring run off Barnes Road, named for Mr. Grunden’s predecessor, Richard Madeiras, who drowned after he fell out of a skiff off East Chop. He was not wearing a PFD at the time.

Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander takes a case-by-case approach. He does not require his employees who collect mooring fees to wear a PFD in good weather within the harbor when there are two people in the boat, but notes PFDs are always in the boat. Employees alone in a boat are supposed to wear a PFD, but he admits that is not always the case.

I understand how easy it is to leave a PFD on the deck. Particularly, when someone is in a comfortable marine environment.

Over the summer, I passed the Dukes County Sheriff’s boat on patrol in Island waters. By all accounts, the crew has provided valuable assistance to towns and boaters.

But whenever I have seen the boat the two crew members were not wearing PFDs. It is the wrong message to send to other boaters.

When the Menemsha Coast Guard station boathouse caught on fire one of the most dramatic photos showed harbormaster Denny Jason and crew Cody Gray in an inflatable against the backdrop of raging flames. Neither man was wearing a PFD.

Their quick action and bravery is without question. But the extra five seconds it would have taken to don a PFD could have saved their lives if there had been an explosion that knocked either man into the water.

This is not an argument about fishing tactics. There is really not much room for debate. PFDs need to be worn.

Found tackle bag

Eben Elias of West Tisbury walked into the Times Tuesday and handed me a tackle bag he found in Menemsha filled with several hundred dollars worth of lures and fishing equipment. Judging by the meticulous way the tackle is arranged it is obvious the bag belongs to a serious fisherman.

Eben did not say much to me but his actions reflect a lot about his character and honesty. Call me at 508-693-6100 or email nelson@mvtimes.com and identify the bag.